Kansas City Jazz: Charlie Parker

Miles Davis once said that the history of jazz could be summed up in four words: “Louie Armstrong. Charlie Parker.” How cool is it that the second half refers to a musician who grew up here in Kansas City?

Charlie Parker was born in Kansas City, KS and raised in Kansas City, MO. He attended Lincoln High School, the only high school for black children in KCMO at the time, but his tenure there was brief, as he joined the local musicians union at the age of 15.

Parker spent a lot of time practicing here in KC. He was undoubtedly influenced by the bands led by Bennie Moten and Count Basie. He started playing saxophone at age 11, and by the late 1930s, he was practicing up to 15 hours each day. In 1938, he joined Jay McShann’s territory band, which took him to venues across the country and brought about his first professional recording.

Parker moved to New York City in 1939 at the age of 19, and it was there that his career blossomed and died. During the fertile stage, Parker discovered the freedom in using the chromatic scale in improvisation, a musical innovation that eventually led to a whole new style that became known as bebop. Parker collaborated with many well-known musicians, including Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Max Roach, and Charlie Mingus. His recording with a string section – with the entirely appropriate name “Charlie Parker With Strings” –  was groundbreaking in its own right, representing the first time a composer of bebop was matched with a string orchestra.

Unfortunately, Charlie Parker had already acquired a cocaine addiction as a teenager, following a car wreck that left him hospitalized. His addiction eventually turned to heroine, and Parker’s career was undoubtedly hindered by his erratic behavior and financial troubles stemming from his addiction. He even resorted to pawning his saxophones for drug money at times – sad news for any musician. Parker’s addiction certainly contributed to his death at the age of 34. One can only imagine the creative work that could have happened if Parker had had access to treatment for his addiction in those years.

In any case, Parker did leave a substantial musical legacy. Two songs representing the strides he made in the jazz world include “Ornithology” and “Yardbird Suite.” You might take a listen to those two tracks on YouTube to get a sense for our hometown boy’s unique musical style.

You might also notice that those two song titles point back to the nickname Charlie Parker acquired early in his career: “Yardbird” or simply “The Bird.” Where did that name come from? Many of the ideas connect to the Bird’s Kansas City days.

Are you a fan of Charlie Parker? What do you think of his style of music? Leave your comments below!

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